The Octu-Mom Controversy: Why Nadya Suleman Is Not (Entirely) To Blame

by The Center for Bioethics and Culture on February 25, 2009

Medical darling one day, death threats the next. What began as Kaiser Permanente’s triumphant story of Nadya Suleman’s eight “healthy” newborns has quickly disintegrated into a dystopian nightmare when it was discovered that Nadya was already a single mother of six living on food stamps, seeking a book deal, and that her striking resemblance to Angelina Jolie was no accident.

Equally interesting are the statements of moral outrage and incredulity leveled at everyone involved — Nadya, her mother, and the fertility specialists at Kaiser. Certainly, there’s plenty of blame to go around. Other criticisms appeal to principles of utility or rely on a basic cost-benefit calculus — “Is this something Ms. Suleman could afford, given that she can’t even support the children she has?” More substantive critiques transcend appeals to procedural norms and consequences, appealing to issues of character (e.g. wisdom, or prudence) or to human nature itself in asserting that a woman’s body is not designed to “carry a litter.”

While all of these criticisms express some degree of moral outrage, one senses a particular level of frustration for a general lack of an established norm from which we might say something more substantial. For instance, pro-life advocates find themselves praising Ms. Suleman for rejecting selective termination of some embryos while at the same time criticizing her for irresponsible behavior. It also appears that some level of frustration may be discerned from what is not being said — that bearing children ought to be subject to familial, emotional, and financial requirements. But this kind of social engineering is too much for us to stomach.

I believe that part of the frustration over Ms. Suleman’s actions stems from our lack of a common good, for which we share a portion of the blame. That is, we are inheriting the fruit of a liberal democracy which protects and celebrates individual autonomy and self-realization, coupled with “consumable” technology which allows us to increasingly realize desires that transcend biological limitations, bereft of any metanarrative or defining story which might otherwise call such exercises into question. Actually, we are following a story of sorts, but one which has left just enough ground on which to do little more than stand and point our finger at another. This story is the myth of freedom, the myth that we are autonomous rational subjects free to pursue our own vision of happiness and fulfillment so long as our rights do not infringe upon another’s. We’re getting what we asked for. And in the absence of any recognized common good, we are left with cost-benefit analyses, discussions over procedural guidelines, and appeals to the very human nature we so eagerly desire to transcend through technology. After all, who are we to call Ms. Suleman’s vision of the good into question, so long as the care of her fourteen children do not infringe upon our own pursuit of the good, so long as our tax dollars go elsewhere? Who would be so bold as to say that Ms. Suleman should never have returned to the fertility center in her mental/emotional/familial/financial situation? “Who am I to say that six is the limit?” asked IVF specialist Dr. Jeffrey Steinberg. Who would be so bold to appeal to religious traditions which might assert that Ms. Suleman should not have pursed children at all as a single woman with no husband?

We can be thankful that those dogmatic, culturally insensitive statements have been banished from the public square, rightly condemned as discriminatory and an affront to both our collective rationality and autonomy. After all, judgments stemming from such religious strictures are unfairly restrictive, and call our unencumbered pursuit of fulfillment into question. Yet, are we not simply inheriting the fruit of an ethic which demands nothing more than we respect the rights of others to pursue their own happiness — in this case eight more newborns — so long as ours is not threatened? Is there no place left to say something tremendously unpopular, to suggest that it was unwise for Ms. Suleman to pursue having any children outside the context of marriage in the first place (as at least one criterion for consideration), confessing that this judgment stems from a particular understanding of the “common good” derived from the Christian (as well as other) Scriptures, which often runs deeply contrary to the metanarrative of the individual pursuit of fulfillment centered around consumption? Though this kind of speech has been largely banished from the public square (and religious communities both celebrate and mourn this), it still exists in some communities of faith. And if indeed, as Stanley Hauerwas has argued, the church is a social ethic, then it would seem that here we might find an environment where assumptions regarding the choice, means and number of children to have are challenged with the same fervency with which such newborns are celebrated — irrespective of the means by which they have come to be (admittedly, Christian Scriptures are often read in ways that actually foreclose such preliminary considerations).

That the celebration of these new lives is so significantly overshadowed by death threats and diatribes against Nadya in a collective “hand-washing” of responsibility is tragic, but is hardly surprising given the metanarrative we have so readily and uncritically bought in to. It is truly tragic because the children are the real casualties here. But unlike many of the scurrilous, vitriolic comments leveled by rights-respecting citizens who want to ensure that their tax dollars are never put toward supporting this misguided mother and her newborns, the church, synagogue, and mosque ought to be places where our collective assumptions are critiqued by these (and other) communities of faith, by brothers and sisters significantly shaped by the wisdom discerned in their respective Holy Scriptures, all of which have a thing or two to say about caring for the least among us. This is not to say that the governmental agencies which may well end up caring for these children are wholly inadequate. We can be grateful for their existence. Nor is it to say all moral commitments require a specific religious grounding. But it certainly seems that our liberal, American ideals could benefit from a healthy dose of “unpopular” wisdom stemming from these communities who would be willing to both forgive Nadya and offer care and support for her children. Even the rather bland, thin liberal dictum that we are all considered equal ought to afford Nadya and her children no less.

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Todd Daly is Assistant Professor of Theology & Ethics at Urbana Seminary. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Edinburgh (Systematic Theology) with research focus on concerns of Bioethics. His dissertation delves into ethical implications that arise from the medical prolongation of life and aging.

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